(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Today we commemorate St. Symeon Stylites, whose account is found in Volume 2 of the series.)
Saint Symeon of the Mountain Thaumastos
Among the many ruins of ancient Greece, there can be found standing after centuries columns that have withstood the erosion of time. Where once they supported roofs, they now support nothing but air and stand like stripped stalks that stretch skyward as pitiful but glorified reminders of a bygone era. There were columns erected, however, not to support a roof but to thrust ascetic dwellers symbolically toward heaven in somewhat spectacular, yet somber, expressions of devotion. The number of pillar dwellers are few and unknown except for two who acquired immortality from atop a column and both of whom shared the name of Symeon.
The first Symeon and by far the most noted was St. Symeon Stylites, who spent his entire adult life on the restricted area of a platform perched atop a pillar located near the city limits of ancient Antioch. It was the will of God that the religious feats of the fifth-century St. Symeon be repeated after another hundred years by a namesake whose fame is the lesser because a time lapse makes him second.
The second Symeon was born in Antioch in 574, the son of deeply religious parents who had been childless for many years and to whom Symeon was born after fervent appeal to God. In the course of one of her many supplications, Symeon’s mother, Maria, beheld a vision of St. John the Baptist who was heard to say that she would have the son she prayed for, and that for reasons known only to God, he would be named Symeon. The delighted Maria and her husband John were so overjoyed at the news that they attached no significance to the name they gave to their son at divine bidding.
By the time he was five, Symeon displayed a wisdom far beyond his years and was drawn to the Church with the devotion and understanding of an adult. While still a teenager, he experienced a grievous loss when his father was killed in an earthquake that took a fearsome toll in the city. The tragedy drew the mother and son even closer, but within a year the boy voiced a compelling desire to serve the Lord in some way, and with his mother’s blessing, he left to find his purpose in life, eventually making his way to the city of Seleucia in Tiverinin where he made the acquaintance of holy men who encouraged him in his quest for a proximity to God.
Symeon ventured out into the bleak desert in search of the solitude which would afford him the time for meditation and prayer in an eremitic vigil for Christ. After some time, he met a man named John, as pious as himself, and together they laid plans for the formation of a monastery at the edge of the desert, accessible to laymen who could come for spiritual comfort and guidance in surroundings that afforded serenity not to be found elsewhere. This was accomplished only by their joint efforts and with great personal sacrifice, sustained throughout by visions which assured them that they were instruments of the Lord.
In one of his many visions, Symeon beheld St. John the Baptist, who revealed the destiny foreordained prior to his birth, and he was instructed to erect a pillar as did his namesake of the century before and to serve the Lord from atop the pillar for a period of eight years. With the help of the many monks who had grown to admire him, Symeon erected a forty-foot pillar on which he perched for the next eight years in extremely ascetic emulation of his predecessor in privation. While still atop the pillar, he was visited by the archbishop of Antioch who ordained him a deacon of the Church. After the eight-year period, he descended only to settle on a higher elevation by scaling a mountain called Thaumastos.
He remained earthbound only long enough to erect another pillar on the mountain which he ascended without ceremony, attended to by friendly monks who saw to his scant needs. Through heat and chill, dryness and rain he withstood the elements in a remarkable display of endurance in a lofty vigil for Christ which was to go on for another forty-five years. A well-worn path was beaten to the foot of his pillar, to which numberless pilgrims came not out of curiosity but out of reverence. A worthy successor to Symeon Stylites, the venerable St. Symeon of the Mountain died atop his pillar at the age of eight-five on May 24.